Rising Number of Ships Slowing to Avoid Whale Strikes on Bay

The beautiful whales that flock to San Francisco Bay waters are a spectacular sight but it’s a relatively small space to share with thousands of ships coming in from all over the world.

And recently, that sharing relationship has proved deadly.

In a five-week span from May to June, five whales washed ashore in the Bay Area, from Oakland to Bolinas, north of Stinson Beach.

Despite those recent incidents, marine sanctuaries feel optimistic about the future of the large marine mammals visiting the bay to feed.

Companies that operate the ships passing through the bay are buying into the idea that they must slow down. Nearly half of the vessels travel at 10 knots or slower at the request of the National Marine Sanctuary. But as far as they’ve come, that leaves a lot of ships that still need to slow down.

Thirteen outfits were recognized Thursday for cutting their speed as they navigate a healthy balance of business on the bay.

"We commend you guys, the shipping companies here today, for partnering with the sanctuaries," said Maria Brown, superintendent of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. "Since 1998, there’s been 138 whales struck by ships along the California coast."

In recent months, the tragedies have turned up on local shores, including an endangered blue whale at Point Reyes National Seashore and a fin whale in Oakland.

"It takes something very large to break the jawbone of a whale," said Jan Roletto, research coordinator for the marine sanctuary. "Or for it to break the vertebrae or the ribs of a whale. And you can see that."

John Berge, with the Pacific Merchants Shipping Association, represents about 30 shipping companies who operate in the Bay Area and partner with the marine sanctuary for safer conditions.

"It’s been building over the years," he said. "And the fact is nobody on these ships wants to hit a whale. It’s a pretty wide array of different companies and ships that are coming in and out of San Francisco Bay. Some are regular callers, some come once every several years. Our effort is to try to get the word out to people."

The word is resonating with the number of ships slowing their engines on the rise in recent years.

The voluntary 10-knot request is only for the shipping lanes, which extend about 30 nautical miles off the coast in a few different directions. And it's in effect only during peak season, from May to November.

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